CLEVELAND – Crammed into a cubicle with heartbreak surrounding him, the lone captain on a Notre Dame men’s basketball team that minutes earlier came a bucket shy of reaching the Final Four for the first time in 37 years, tried to process it all.
A few minutes earlier he was doing what he does – competing like few others in the uniform have ever competed. He was charging down the lane against the nation’s top-ranked team, a team that many said could not be beat. He was throwing down a monster two-handed dunk, hanging on the rim for a little extra emphasis, sticking out his tongue as he swaggered to the bench with his team up four with 14 minutes remaining in what would become the highest-rated and most-watched sports program in cable history (14.7 million viewers).
He battled fellow future millionaires, albeit in a sport different than the one that will one day likely pay him well, who had five, six, seven inches on him. Yet there he was, doing all the tough stuff. Scraping out loose balls, collecting rebounds as if they were candy and keeping a group of guys many figured had no chance to win this one believing.
They believed because he believed.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the guys I went to battle with tonight,” Pat Connaughton said. “At the end of the day, when you look back on it, you did a lot to put Notre Dame back on the map.”
One minute, Notre Dame was on the verge of an upset for the ages, a win that would top all program wins. The next, it was all over. There sat Connaughton, not moving to take off that gold jersey for the final time as a college basketball player because he knew that it never would go back on before it’s one day raised to the rafters back home as part of the school’s Ring of Honor.
How does anyone deal with that?
“I don’t know if it’s difficult or if it’s something that I’m not physically able to do at this point,” Connaughton said. “When the season ends that abruptly, there’s a lot that’s going through your mind. You think about all the ups in a season, you think about the downs.
“You think about a lot of things.”
There he sat in that small, sad locker room. Pizzas cooled untouched in the corner. The game plan, written neatly in black marker, still stood on the white grease board next to the door that led to the playing floor.
Nothing easy in transition.
Alert to defensive changes.
Level 5 team rebounding
Pick our spots to run and attack
WE control tempo
Great movement = great shots
This wasn’t supposed to end. There was supposed to be another round of nets to cut down, another set of hats and shirts to wear on a happy bus ride west Sunday afternoon. There was supposed to be practice Monday, film session Tuesday, another bus ride to another NCAA venue Wednesday. More press conferences Thursday. A game Saturday.
“The best thing about it is you went through a season with guys you call brothers,” Connaughton said. “It’s been phenomenal. I’ve loved every second of it. The hardest part is you know it’s over.”
Composed until the end, Connaughton fielded every question, sometimes, two, three, four different versions of it, looked every interviewer in the eye and answered as if Notre Dame had come out on the right end of the 68-66 final score. Instead, the faint sounds of the Kentucky celebration could be heard in the church-quiet room.
Many insisted that Notre Dame had to play the perfect game just to have a sliver’s chance. Many got it wrong. It was Kentucky that had to play perfectly down the stretch of a game Notre Dame led by six with six minutes left, led by four with four minutes, led by two with two minutes. The Wildcats connected on their final nine shots, including two Andrew Harrison free throws with six seconds remaining, to sidestep an upset for the ages.
Make six of nine, seven of nine, even eight of nine, and Kentucky goes home. Notre Dame moves on.
“We stood toe-to-toe with them,” Connaughton said.
Unable to get one more loose ball, make one more defensive stand, get one more shot to drop in a game that featured 12 ties and 20 lead changes, Notre Dame just wasn’t good enough in the end. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end, not for these guys, not for this senior. Maybe one day soon, Connaughton will look back on the whole ride, smile and think to himself, "Yeah, we did that.''
He did that.
There have been team captains that have come before him and captains that will come afterward. Guys in the same somber locker room like sophomores Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia likely will work and work well in that role in future seasons. But one would be challenged to find a captain who ever has driven or will drive the Irish basketball train as straight and as hard and as consistently as Connaughton. Every day, every practice, every hour, he worked to leave this program better than what it was last season when there were too many losses.
This was Pat’s world, assistant coach Anthony Solomon often said this season. Everyone else was just living in it.
Connaughton vowed that it was going to be different. Vowed that Notre Dame was going to be better. Had to be better. Would be better under his watch. It all happened just as he had hoped. Had dreamed. Had planned.
Notre Dame won 32 games, one shy of the school record set over a century ago. The Irish will hang an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship banner, the first in school history. They won 15 games away from Purcell Pavilion. They kept fighting, kept battling, kept believing.
Their captain wouldn’t let them think any other way.
Connaughton raised the standard by which all future Irish captains will be judged. There may be ones who are more talented. Who may score more points. Ones who may break the school record – his record – for career games played (139).
But will they ever lead as well as Connaughton did? Will they have the focus and energy to bring it every day for five, six, seven months?
It all ended for him and for Notre Dame late Saturday night in a city once dubbed the “Mistake by the Lake.” But make no mistake, while a big part of Connaughton’s collegiate basketball career ended with it, his legacy is just beginning.
He will be the standard by which all future Irish captains are held.
There sat the captain late Saturday, still doing what the captain does. Another like him may not be seen around the Irish program for a long time.